Where to Stand

I wrote last week about Bill C-559, the proposed “Reform Act” that would, if enacted by Parliament, shift some power from party leaders to parliamentary caucuses and maybe individual MPs. It would do so by making it impossible for a leader to deny a candidate chosen by a local party association the ability to run for the party at an election, by making expulsions from (and re-admissions to) a party caucus subject to the caucus’ members’ secret vote, and giving a caucus the ability to dismiss a party leader, also in a secret vote, which can be instigated by 15% of its members. These changes, I wrote, raise two sorts of questions. First, would our political system be better if they were implemented? And, second, is legislation the right way to implement such changes? In this post, I will address the first of these questions.

I need to emphasize, however, that my thinking here is quite tentative, and that I do not claim any particular expertise in political matters. Nonetheless, legislation that affects the workings of Parliament is obviously a matter if constitutional significance, in a substantive sense at least, and thus of interest to me. Another important caveat is that, in reality, nobody seems to have a clear idea of what the effects of Bill C-559’s coming into force would be. Both supporters and opponents of the bill seem to be suggesting that these effects would be at once very limited (and hence the bill is either innocuous or useless) and far-reaching (and hence it is either very important or very dangerous). I think that, as a matter of precaution, we should assess the bill on the assumption that it will have a real impact ― but that is only an assumption, not even an educated guess.

Bill C-559 is described and defended as a means to give powers to MPs, at the expense of party leaders. However, it is important to make a distinction, between the powers of individual MPs and those of MPs as members of party caucuses. Of the three changes reforms of Bill C-559, only that which would make local party associations rather than party leaders responsible for endorsing party candidates will really make individual MPs more independent. Preventing a leader from unilaterally expelling an MP from caucus will do nothing for a real gadfly who breaks with the party line and thereby angers not only the leader, but also his or her caucus colleagues (who, in any case, even with C-559, would remain under a considerable influence from the leadership). As Dan Arnold notes in an op-ed in the National Post, it is scandal or rejection by colleagues, not “excessive” independence from leadership that tend to bring about MPs’ expulsions.

What is more, the independence from the leadership which C-559 would grant an MP would have a flip side: dependence on the local party association. I am not sure that an MP so dependent would be in a better position than one beholden to the party leadership to exercise independent will and judgment. Perhaps ― but I would like the supporters of this change address this issue, which I have not seen done so far. A further problem, raised by Alison Loat in an op-ed in the Globe, is that, at present, riding associations often lack the transparency and organization necessary for them to handle even their current responsibilities, never mind the increased ones that Bill C-559 would grant them. In its present form, the bill would at best do little more than shift power from one set of actors of dubious legitimacy to another.

Legitimacy is also key to assessing the proposal of giving caucuses the power to remove party leaders. The supporters of Bill C-559 argue that this power already exists as a matter of “convention.” And as a practical matter, it would probably be most difficult for a leader who lost the support of his or her caucus to cling on to leadership. However, it remains the cases that ― unlike in other Commonwealth jurisdictions to which the supporters of C-559 compare its proposals ― the ultimate source of a party leader’s legitimacy in Canada is the support not of his or her caucus, but of a much larger constituency. At the very least, it is a fairly broad set of delegates at a leadership convention; but, increasingly, it is all the members of a party (if the party uses a one-member-one-vote system for leadership contests), or an even larger number of people (for the Liberal Party, which opened its most recent leadership contest to non-member “supporters”). It is at least conceivable that a leader would lose the support of the caucus while retaining the support of the party as a whole; perhaps more realistically, a party may elect a new leader who does not enjoy the support of the caucus (Stéphane Dion may have been in that situation in 2006, though I am not sure). In such cases, how would it be legitimate for the members of the caucus to dismiss the leader and, in effect, impose their views to the party members? Bill C-559 acknowledges something like this concern by providing that, upon dismissing a leader, the caucus only has the power to appoint an interim replacement, not a permanent one. But, given the practices of Canadian political parties, even giving a caucus veto power over the members’ choice (which is what C-559 amounts to) seems a decrease, rather than an increase, in democracy.

More generally, one must ask whether Bill C-559 makes sense in light of the reality of politics in the 21st century. Democracy today does not look the same as it did in the days of James Madison or Edmund Burke, or even those of John Diefenbaker. In other Commonwealth jurisdictions, which the supporters of C-559 cite as models, and even in continental Europe, where political parties are much more regulated than in the Commonwealth, the role of legislators and legislatures has been changing. As Bernard Manin’s excellent book on The Principles of Representative Government explains, politics throughout the Western world are more leader-centric than they used to be, largely because of the leaders’ ability to use the media to connect with the electorate, and because the the complexity and challenges of today’s world favour executive decision-making. Standing athwart history and yelling ‘stop’ might be noble and even necessary, but one needs to be intelligent in picking the place where to make one’s stand.

It seems to me that Bill C-559 does not make the best choice. As Dan Arnold points out,

all that is being transferred are punitive powers – the opportunity to boot a leader, or a caucus member. This act would do nothing to give them a greater say in passing laws or having their opinions heard.

If one really wants to challenge the seemingly inexorable course of the centralization of political power in the hands of party leaders and their coteries of spin-masters, one should find ways to actually involve legislators in debate and legislation. Having more free, or at least freer, votes, as Colin Horgan suggests, would be a good start. The difficulty with this approach is that it is probably not amenable to legislation. But, of course, it is not clear that legislation is an appropriate tool to implement even the changes that Bill C-559 would make.

5 thoughts on “Where to Stand

  1. My first thoughts on reading your essay is that while yes, the powers the bill would advance to caucus are punitive, it is largely because the powers used by the leaders to keep MPs in line are punitive. If you’re uncooperative and independent minded, that alone may not see you ejected from caucus, but perks that range from MP junkets through to committee membership right up Cabinet posts are used punitively by leaders.

    We’ve tried this before as well. Chretien loosened the rains during the first years of the Liberal government in the mid-90s, but soon enough power was retracted back into the PMO.

    And that ultimately is what this is being targeted at. There is a real perception, so far as I understand it, that the leaders and their personal staff wield a great deal of real power in how caucus functions. Senator Duffy’s stories of the “kids in short pants” may be an amusing, if hyperbolic statement, but the fact remains that leaders, as they concentrate power until themselves, also empower their owner inner circles to the point where stories of cabinet ministers, who are supposed to be members of the pre-eminent executive body in the Westminster system, are given marching orders by PMO staffers.

    Maybe there is a growing tendency in Western parliaments for the leaders to gain power due to the media attention put on them, but never the less, try to fathom an open rebellion of the kind we see in the British Parliament every few months (the last one being several Tory MPs joining with Labour over the proposed Syria bombing campaign). Try to even fathom the existence of something like the 1922 Committee in a Canadian caucus.

    Maybe this bill doesn’t solve the problem, but then what does? Do we just continue to see MPs transformed into impotent ciphers? Do we really surrender our MPs completely to party machines, and if we continue down this course, what exact purpose does Parliament even serve?

    • Well, if this bill doesn’t do the job ― and I strongly suspect that it doesn’t ― then we need to stop wasting time on it, and think about alternative. It’s not easy, I fully agree. And I’m not knowledgeable enough to have much by way of positive suggestions. It’s a lot easier to criticize, admittedly, though that fact does not disprove the validity of the criticism.

      Maybe we can change the way committee assignments are allocated. Maybe there are other ways to get individual MPs more involved in elaborating legislation. Parties could loosen discipline ― but that is not something that can be done through legislation. (By the way, I think the media bear a share of guilt here. They jump on any internal dissent as a sign, not of healthy debate, but of the leader’s weakness, which gives the leaders every incentive to be control freaks.)

      Maybe we should also reduce the number of cabinet positions. There are almost 40 of those, plus almost 30 parliamentary secretaries. When almost half a government’s caucus has some kind of title and perk, and the other half has a real hope of getting some of that, they are much easier to buy off or keep under control. I suspect that this might be one difference with the UK, simply due to the fact that their Parliament is much larger, and the number of backbenchers without hope of preferment correspondingly higher.

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